Eventful past few days

The “Forbidden Island” of Rumung

Landing on Rumung.  The only thing we left was our footprints.

Landing on Rumung. The only thing we left was our footprints.

One of the details that is often unsaid about Yap, is that, in fact, it is not an island.  Yap is a collection of islands – some big, some small (okay, actually all are small, but some more than others), some high, and some low.  Some are developed.  Some not.  And – to the point here – only some welcome visitors.  Rumung is part of the central cluster of islands that comprise “Yap Proper,” and is just a stone’s throw from the others.  But, there are no bridges to Rumung.  No roads once you get there.  No running water.  No electricity (except by occasional generator).  Most importantly, there are no visitors.  Except us.   We were invited to Rumung to map an recently burned area, and to scout the location of a future fire break (a line of trees meant to stop grass fires).  We were thrilled at both the opportunity and the view.  Visiting Rumung was definitely a highlight of the trip.

Meeting the US Ambassador to the Federated States of Micronesia

Meeting with the Ambassador.  Many students were playing soccer, and weren't able to join us here.

Meeting with the Ambassador. Many students were playing soccer, and weren’t able to join us here.

Another highlight of the trip was having a private meeting with the US Ambassador to FSM, Doria Rosen.  She was on Yap en route to the high school graduation ceremony on the outer island of Ulithi.  She was extremely gracious with her words and her time.  After our conversation, she even posed with a Queens t-shirt.  I think many students (and faculty!) were ready to sign up for Foreign Service duty.

Soccer

While many of us were meeting the Ambassador, others were playing in a friendly game of soccer against the Yap State Men’s Soccer Team.  Actually, the “Queens” side was a mix of Queens students (Eric, Jaime, Ashley, and Macie), American teachers from Yap Catholic High School, and five local Yap players.  The “Queens” side scored the only goal, but sport won the day.

We’ve been busy on Yap

As might be expected, we have been very busy on Yap.  Okay, perhaps you didn’t expect that.  But, it’s true.

Scuba diving

Iris and Abby enjoying a dive!

Iris and Abby enjoying a dive!

Soon after arrival, all of the students completed their scuba certification.  Hooray!  Our local scuba partner is Yap Pacific Dive Resort, run by Dieter Kudler, and they have done a fantastic job of showing us the ropes.  Yap is one of the top dive destinations on the planet, and we doing everything we can to take advantage of that.  We have dived with manta rays (totally harmless) with 12’ wingspans, as well as other cartilaginous fish.  We have seen pilot whales, flying fish, and sea turtles.

Work projects

Working in the village of Maakiy.  Every inch of the island is important!

Working in the village of Maakiy. Every inch of the island is important!

But … we haven’t only been diving.  We’ve also been working.  Our projects this year have been varied and exciting.

  • On Monday, we worked in the village of Maakiy to help with their proposal to UNESCO to become a World Heritage Site – the first such designation in Micronesia.  According to Yapese legend, Maakiy is where traditions and dances were handed down from the gods to the Yapese.  It is also where much of the traditional stone money was (and is) stored, after being quarried on Palau and transported by sailing canoe to Yap.
  • Yesterday for example, we went to the “forbidden” island of Rumung (one of the four clustered islands that make up Yap).  Entrance to Rumung is only possible through the permission of the local chief, and we weren’t sure until Monday if it would happen.  Once on Rumung, we mapped a recently burned area (for fire management needs) and scouted locations for a future “green fire break” (a planting of trees intended to stop the spread of low-intensity grassland fires).
  • Today, we helped map the village of Gargey.  This is part of a larger project aiming to develop a strategy of adapting to sea-level rise.  Already, salt water is intruding into some of the near-shore gardens.  Food production will need to be moved upland.  Our mapping (of stone paths, housing platforms, grave sites, etc.) will help make that happen.

Laundry

Because we’ve been on island for about a week, that means lots of dirty clothes.  On Saturday, we ventured to the local Laundromat.  Doing laundry is an event on Yap, and takes most of the day.  It’s a slow pace.

BBQ

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In case anyone forgets where we are, we like to spell it out on occasion. From left: Lindsey, Mollie, Iris, and Jamie.

And yes, we did find time for some social activity.  We managed to squeeze in a local BBQ given in honor of the ex-patriot teachers leaving Yap and returning to the US.  One of the teachers, Kelsey Hansen, is a Queens alum (’12) and has been teaching at Yap High School for two years.   It was a great evening of song, games, and conversations about Yap.  Yap’s culture, like many, is transmitted through story.  During the BBQ, we heard many.  And so we learn.

We have made it to Yap!

We have made it to Yap!  And we are very (very) happy to be here.

Team Yap 2014

As a way of introduction, let me point out that Team Yap 2014 includes:

  • 12 students from Michigan, California, Illinois, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and the very fine country of Iceland
  • 8 majors (from Environmental Science to Communication to Nursing)
  • 2 faculty and one Dean

The Travel

On our first morning, we hiked to the top of Mt. Madeqdeq to watch the sunrise.

On our first morning, we hiked to the top of Mt. Madeqdeq to watch the sunrise.

There’s no other way to say it:  Yap is a LONG way from Charlotte.   Imagine 20 hours of sitting in a plane, then another 24 of airports, shuttles, and layovers.  Imagine taking off on Thursday morning and not arriving until Saturday night (crossing the International Dateline en route).  Imagine leaving the land of sweet tea and magnolias, and entering the island of coconut trees and hibiscus flowers.

To be honest, the length of the trip was a bit longer because we enjoyed an overnight stay in Honolulu.  There were beaches that needed visiting and fish tacos that needed to be eaten.  We were happy to oblige.   We also enjoyed the last hot shower and real bed we’d see for three weeks.

The Arrival

Taking a break on Yap.  Our house is right on the ocean, and that's just fine with us.

Taking a break on Yap. Our house is right on the ocean, and that’s just fine with us.

When you land on Yap, you know it from the first breath.  It’s air that you can feel.  Hot.  Humid.  Thick with the smell of flowers and ocean.  We were met at the airport by old friends.  Raymond (Dept. of Land Resources) and Pius (Dept. of Agriculture and Forestry) presented us with nunuws (flower head bands) and delivered us to our house.  We’re living in an “abay” – a community house originally built for the Palauan community on Yap.  It has no hot water, no air conditioning, and one bathroom (with no mirrors).  BUT, its back yard is the Pacific Ocean – and, in that way, it’s perfect.  Absolutely perfect.

The Next Three Weeks

Having never seen the edge of the Earth before, we decided to take pictures.

Having never seen the edge of the Earth before, we decided to take pictures.

The next three weeks will be spent working with local counterpart agencies on Yap.  As always, they determine the projects and the priority.  We are here only to help paddle the canoe, not steer it.   In addition to our work, we will of course, find the time to play.  Students will become certified scuba divers.  Hikes across ancient stone paths will be taken.  Barbecues will be had.

Lagoon Letter 3

I promised to write about where we live. 

Well, to start, we live in a house that isn’t really a house.   It’s really a community building, called an “abai,” built several years ago for the Palauan community on Yap.  There is one large room (maybe 25’ x  40’) where we have set up our cots.  There is one kitchen area (fridge, two-burner hot plate, toaster oven) and one bathroom (one shower, two toilets).  Oh, and there is the glorious back porch, from which we overlook the ocean.  That’s it.  Three rooms and a porch. 

The abai is pretty palatial by local standards., but folks back home are usually more interested in what the house does NOT have.  For example, it has no air conditioning or hot water.  It has no internet (a source of frustration in these 24-7 wifi connected times).  It occasionally has no electricity (until Yap’s diesel generators are turned back on).  And, it has no privacy — a classic experiment in communal living. 

For the experiment to work, we have to get along.  It’s that simple.  For that, we have house meetings every few nights to discuss how things are going.  As you might expect, comments range from “Who has my sunscreen?” to “We need to do house chores tomorrow!”  We have a budget for house supplies (fans, cleaning supplies, etc.) that must be managed, and schedules (“Who’s working tomorrow and who’s diving?”) to maintain. 

And, with any trip to the tropics, there is the reality that people get tired and have hard days.  These are discussed, too.  If there is one great truth in the tropical 3rd world, it is that you cannot hide from the sun.   The sun wears on you.  If a hard day gets in your way, you take a day off from work.  You relax and recover.  So far, we have been fortunate to not have any injuries or illnesses.  The worst so far is a mild heat rash.  We have an extensive first aid kit, so are prepared.

But another way to describe where we live is by our location on Yap.  We live in the village of Worwoo within the municipality of Rull.  We are about a 5-minute walk from Colonia, the only thing resembling a town on Yap.  Colonia has all of the islands restaurants, dive shops, and grocery stores, as well as all of the government buildings.  

Our neighbors come from the atolls of Woleai, Satawal, Eurapik, and Ulithi.   Their homes are made of 2x4s and corrugated sheet metal.  Many have even fewer things than we do (no refrigerator, no indoor kitchen).  As best they can, while on Yap, they work to maintain their traditional customs of dress, diet, and routine.  Part of that has meant being extremely gracious hosts for us during our stay.  They have brought us bananas, coconuts, and mangoes.  We have shared clams (collected during one of our dive trips by a dive guide from Satawal), only to have them returned to us cooked in a coconut lime sauce, much to our gastronomic delight.

I will stop here because it is late and we are getting up early tomorrow to go mangrove kayaking in the village of Maa.  I also need to tell you about our work projects, including a wonderful day spent at the Yap Catholic High School.   There’s so much to describe!

Reed

Lagoon Letter 2 – Sunset

In the last Lagoon Letter, I described our hike up Mt. Madeqdeq to see the sun rise.  On Friday, we hiked the Tamilyog Trail to watch the sun set.  Unlike most stone paths, the Tamilyog Trail is accessible to everyone.  Traditionally, it was a major thoroughfare used for long distance walking journeys across the island.  In other words, it was the I-85 of Yap.  

We went to the village of Kanif (on the western end of the trail) hiked up to the resting platform at the top of the hill.  We saw large fruit bats (totally harmless since they only eat … fruit) and a variety of birds (crimson honeycatchers, tropic white birds, and others).

Spelling YAP with the sunset

  Then, we waited for the sun to do its thing.  Eventually, it did.  In a moment of inspiration, we spelled out Yap with the sunset as your background.   On the way down the trail, we hiked in darkness surrounded by fireflies.

Will and Kelsey’s visit 

On Monday night, Will Massey (Queens ’08) and Kelsey Hansen (Queens ’11) stopped by to share some of their wisdom about Yap.  Both Will and Kelsey teach at the local high school. Will teaches English literature and writing.  Kelsey teaches Science.  In Yapese fashion, we gathered in a circle and started sharing stories.  We learned to never step over a person’s betel nut basket, to never (ever) throw food, and to always keep your voice low. 

Kelsey and Will share their knowledge of Yap.

Yapese culture appreciates quiet.  Having Queens alumni living on Yap has given students from Queens’ culture a unique window into Yapese culture.  Will and Kelsey are able to describe the latter in terms of the former.

Lagoon Letter 1

You already know this, but Yap is a hard place to get to.

We’ve arrived!!

Leaving Charlotte at 5:40 AM means arriving at the airport at 4:15, which means leaving home at 3:45, which means waking up at 3:15, which often means … not going to sleep. From Charlotte, it’s a matter of four flights, five airports, and 30+ hours of sitting. Then, you’re on Yap. 1:00 AM. Scratchy-eyed and restless. Thrilled to finally be here, but exhausted. We were met at the airport by John Waayan (long-time friend of Queens and current Director of Yap’s Land Resources Office), and Will Massey and Kelsey Hansen (former Queens students now teaching at Yap High School). They transported us safely to our new home in the village of Worwoo, and we fell asleep quickly on our cots.

Our first day on island was spent getting acclimated. We unpacked our things, took inventory of needed house supplies, and went shopping. We walked around the lagoon, stopping in the little stores and bakeries along the way. Margie Falanruw (another long-time friend of Queens on Yap) stopped by to give us a phone and talk about our upcoming work projects. Margie is a field scientist and mentor to all of us while we’re here. – an absolute treasure. Later in the day, we visited with Dieter Kudler, owner of Yap Divers, our scuba partner on Yap. Not everyone is getting scuba certified, but many are. In future blog entries, I will describe our work and play.

The view from Mt. Madeqdeq

Every student made the hike up Mt. Madeqdeq to watch the sun rise over the Pacific.

One of the truly wonderful things about jet lag on Yap is that you wake up in the morning as if you’ve been popped out of a toaster. Yap is 14 hours ahead of Charlotte (5:00 AM on Yap = 3:00 PM in Charlotte). To take advantage of this wonderful discombobulation, we hiked to the top of Mt. Madeqdeq to watch the sun rise over the Pacific to find our small island. With headlamps and water bottles, we ventured up the path. We were not disappointed.

The view from our back porch

So, after our first few days on Yap, we are getting settled. We have moved in, hung hammocks, and met our neighbors (especially the puppies!). We have bought groceries, hiked, and learned that we can snorkel off our back porch. Importantly, we have met our work counterparts (from multiple agencies). We have learned that what we are about to do on Yap makes a real and positive difference.

And, we have also already learned this: while Yap is a hard place to get to, it will be an even harder place to leave.

Reed

Lagoon Letter 9 – Guam’s Pagat Cave

Exploring the limestone forest near Pagat Cave.

Sunday May 29 — Today is Sunday on Kosrae, and that means going to church. In a few minutes, we’ll be off to the Community Church of Tafunsak. I have a bit of time before we leave, though, to catch you up on our last day on Guam. This was truly an unexpected highlight of our trip.

Exploring the Pagat Cave. The (fresh)water was cool and clear.

You know from a previous Lagoon Letter that Dr. Chris Lobban (University of Guam) and Mr. Leevin Camacho (a local community leader) had offered to lead the group on a hike to Pagat Cave. I have known Chris and his wife Maria for many years, so I knew this going to be a great hike. You can see from the pictures (to be added soon!) that it was simply breathtaking. Guam is a raised limestone island, with a sharply tiered shape. Like ants on a wedding cake, we hiked from the top of one stair down to the ocean. The hike was steep, slippery, and over very sharp coral fragments (deposited eons ago when Guam was under water). Getting to the coastline, though was worth every bit of the effort. And this wasn’t even the best part.

The picture speaks for itself! An exceptional group of students enjoying the view on the shoreline near Pagat Cave.

On the way back up the trail, we stopped to explore Pagat Cave, formed by erosion of the limestone by the subsurface flow of water. Though not long (~150 m), the cave was very dramatic since we could go swimming in it. That’s right. We carried scuba flashlights and masks and went cave snorkeling. There were no fish, but the water was crystal clear. Examining the stalagmites and limestone deposits underwater was incredibly cool (literally and figuratively!). We swam and echoed and splashed and took underwater cave pictures. Then we hiked, dripping and smiling all the way, back to the cars.

Lagoon Letter 8 — On Kosrae!

Sat May 28 — After taking the “island hopper” flight (Guam to Chuuk to Pohnpei to Kosrae), we finally arrived at our final destination, the island of Kosrae. We have begun to settle into our house (directly across the street from the ocean). This morning, we are off to go diving. We will go to church tomorrow (a major cultural event on Kosrae), then begin our work projects on Monday. That’s all for now. Time to go diving!

— Reed

Lagoon Letter 7 – Yap Last Days

Queens' students having a conversation with Will Massey's (Team Yap 07) Junior English class at Yap High School.

Thursday March 26 – I need to describe our last two days on Yap. As I mentioned in Lagoon Letter 6, they were a huge bag of mixed emotions.

Monday started by visiting Will Massey’s (Queens ’08) class at Yap High School. Will is the Chair of the English Department there and teaches Honors English (among other classes). We visited his class last week and had a marvelous time sharing experiences. Our students wanted to know if the Yapese highschoolers wanted to go to college (“Yes.”), what they did after school (“Nothing!”), and if they had cell phones (“Of course!!”). The Yapese students wanted to know if Queens students really studied (“Yes.”), what they didn’t like about Yap (“Nothing!”), and if they would ever come back (“Of course!!). Monday’s visit was less structured. Megan and Ray brought supplies to decorate the girls’ nails, which proved a wonderful way of generating fun conversation. The real star of the morning (surprisingly) was Ben, who has a career in cosmetology if he wants it. The hour was fast, loud, and fun.

Yap students preparing for the traditional stick dance.

Monday afternoon, we had one of the best experiences of the entire trip so far. We visited the Gagil Elementary School graduation ceremony, featuring many traditional dances. On the school grounds, the girls started with a set of sitting dances. A caller sings out the story and the “dancers” – all sitting in a single line facing the audience – follow along with synchronized hand motions. They are all dressed in traditional costume of hibiscus-fiber skirts, coconut oil and turmeric, and head bands made of plants. Next up were the boys who marched in wearing traditional thuws (or loin cloths) and joined the girls in a “stick dance.” This one is my favorite. It’s like a square dance, but with everyone swinging bamboo sticks. When adults do it, they swing so hard the sticks break and new ones are thrown in from support people on the side. Like I said, it’s my favorite. Watching these dances made us reflect on the rich history and culture of the Yapese.

Monday evening was our Going Away Reception, hosted by the Division of Land Resources (our official host agency), the Yap Visitors Bureau, the Historic Preservation Office, and the Department of Agriculture and Forestry. All of the last three agencies were our partners on our work projects. Fine speeches were made and heartfelt thanks were expressed. The students and faculty received many gifts from our counterparts: t-shirts, a miniature Yap state flag, a special “Smokey the Fruit Bat” bandana (produced by our friend Dr. Margie Falanruw, Director of the Yap Institute of Natural Science, to promote fire prevention on Yap), and other small tokens. After the gifts, we had a veritable feast of local foods: fresh sashimi, taro, cooked fish, salads, and breadfruit. We laughed and told stories of our Yap adventures to each other. It was a great evening that made everyone remember why they signed up for this trip: the chance to travel deeply into a culture and experience it on its own terms.

Alvaro and Amy showing off the tuna they caught (along with Jesse) on their boat ride.

On Tuesday, the entire Team Micronesia 2011 enjoyed a boat tour around the island (except Drs. Pillar and Perkins, who spent the morning paying electric and water bills, etc.). They went snorkeling and saw sea turtles. They went fishing and Amy, Jesse, and Alvaro caught tuna “island style” – that is, using nothing but a line and lure (no pole!). Everyone also got sun burned – a not-so-gentle reminder that we are in the tropics! Upon our return, we frantically organized, packed, and cleaned our house. When our chores were done, we had a few hours left to visit with the many people coming by to wish us well. So, we sat and laughed and listened and talked until 11:30 pm came, bringing with it the trucks transporting us to the airport.

And, at 2:30 am, we left Yap. As we sat in our seats, we stared out the plane windows at the little island we called home — incredibly glad we came, sad it was time to leave, and hopeful the rest of the trip will be as wonderful.

– Reed

Team Yap 2011

Lagoon Letter 6 — On Guam!

Wed May 25 — We are now on Guam! I just have a second here, but do promise to describe our last days on Yap in another post. They were wonderful and happy and sad (at the thought of leaving).

As for our time on Guam, we arrived on island at 4:00 am this morning, slept until 1-2, then, for the remainder of the day, reveled in the novelty of air-conditioning and hot water. Tomorrow, we are going on a hike through a limestone forest and ancient Chamorro village (Chamorros are the native people on Guam). At the end of that hike, we will be exploring Pagat Cave. We are fortunate to have local guides Dr. Chris Lobban (University of Guam, Biology) and Mr. Leevin Camacho (local resident and community leader). They will be sharing everything they know about Guam and the local places.

– Reed